I've been a Star Trek fan since about the age of four when my parents were watching the original series on TV and I wandered into the room to see a weird dude with pointy ears and a bowl cut prattling on about space anomalies and whatnot. From then I was hooked, and despite not understanding much of the sci-fi technobabble at that age, I could somehow easily identify with the gallant Captain Kirk, the crotchety Dr. McCoy, and of course the computer-minded Mr. Spock. My fandom increased tenfold in the early 80s when I went to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and these characters and their adventures were presented on a much larger scale. We were still treated to philosophical explorations of the human condition, but with much slicker production values and effects.
The Star Trek films were major events for me every 2-3 years and some of them still hold up among my favorite science fiction movies. Thus far we've had three series of films; from 1979-1991 the original Star Trek cast graced the big screen, and then from 1994-2002 the Next Generation crew got their turn. Finally in 2009 Paramount rebooted the series completely, recasting the original characters and converting Star Trek into more of a Star Wars-esque action franchise.
But how do the 13 movies stack up against each other? This being a Top Ten Things column I'll only talk briefly about the three films I've ranked at the bottom.
Star Trek: Insurrection has to be the weakest in the entire series, with its half-hearted storyline about a society of 600 Ba'ku hogging the life-extending resources of an entire planet at the expense of their dying brethren the Son'a. And for some reason the Enterprise helps the Ba'ku stay there. Huh?? Don't the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
Next up is Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, a nigh-unwatchable mess of a film that clearly suffered from a Hollywood writer's strike, leaving director William Shatner without a coherent script. This film cost $33 million, more than any previous Star Trek movie, yet the effects are Original Series bad. Basically everything went wrong here, and the film fails to find a middle ground between goofy comedy and heavy emotional drama.
Our final entry to fall short of the top ten is Star Trek: Generations, the one that kicked off the NextGen films. Generations has some fun moments but its convoluted plot involving an energy ribbon that somehow absorbs people and lets them live out their wildest fantasies simply doesn't hold up to scrutiny, nor does the shoehorned involvement of Captain Kirk. And did we really need to see the Klingons and their Bird of Prey AGAIN??
Now that we've gotten the worst of the bunch out of the way let's look at the top ten Star Trek films....
10. Star Trek Beyond
Here's a movie I had high hopes for. I'd read that this was the closest the new series has gotten to capturing the philosophical, character-driven bent of the original show. And while Beyond has a little of that - Kirk for example laments early on that the ongoing voyage is taking its toll on him and his crew - sadly the film plunges almost immediately into an extended action sequence that leaves the Enterprise in pieces in a matter of minutes. They don't treat poor Enterprise well in these films, do they? Anyway, the crew gets separated during the space battle and we learn a little about the villain Krall. Mostly that his name is Krall. Seriously, this film uses a fine actor like Idris Elba pretty shabbily. He's given nothing to do in the first two acts except bark angrily, and it's not until the final half hour we're told his motivation and his true identity; by then it's hard to care. What I liked about this film: Kirk had some solid character moments, McCoy and Scotty had more to do, the new character Jaylah was very cool and likable, Krall and Kirk had one poignant scene toward the end, and the Spock-Uhura romance was barely present. What I didn't like: Krall is motivated by revenge just like the last three Star Trek villains, Krall is barely a character beyond that, there's once again too much emphasis on Star Wars-y action, and Spock's wig looks terrible. Distractingly so. Star Trek Beyond is the weakest of the most recent series. And what exactly does "Beyond" refer to?
9. Star Trek: Nemesis
Nemesis is a guilty pleasure. It's a pretty terrible, unnecessarily dour affair featuring a young clone of Captain Picard trying to destroy the Enterprise, Romulus and Earth, and contains far too many Wrath of Khan callbacks and a go-nowhere subplot involving an earlier model of Data, but damn if it isn't entertaining drivel. A young, far less jacked Tom Hardy plays Shinzon, Picard's clone who spent his childhood enslaved on Romulus's sister planet Remus, building up a severe hatred for both his Romulan oppressors and his "father" Picard. He fashions a giant evil starship to exact his revenge, and all hell breaks loose. This template of a revenge-obsessed villain with a gigantic ship would oddly be used in some form for all three reboot films, despite Nemesis tanking at the box office. Still this film includes some of the best space battle sequences in the NextGen series, plus Tom Hardy! But it's not good...
8. Star Trek (2009)
The 2009 reboot essentially took the original series characters, boiled them down to their most easily identifiable cursory traits, and turned them into action heroes. This film is an all-thrusters-ahead popcorn movie that vaguely resembles the series we all know and love. Casting was key here, and fortunately Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, and Simon Pegg do an admirable job of reimagining their characters while staying more or less true to their predecessors. This film is all about setting up the new version of Star Trek and thus the main plot is fairly forgettable. A revenge-hungry Romulan named Nero has been chasing a future incarnation of Mr. Spock through time in retaliation for Spock's failing to save Romulus from a supernova, and a space battle ensues between the brand new Enterprise and Nero's monstrous vessel. Star Trek 2009 is full of slick visuals, engaging action and light humor but fails to explore profound human themes the way the original series did. Still it's a fun popcorn movie with characters we can all relate to, thus it's better than 90% of the summer blockbusters these days.
7. Star Trek Into Darkness
Another guilty pleasure, Into Darkness is a tremendously entertaining approximation of a Star Trek film, but also shamelessly wedges in fan service that hurts the film greatly. If Benedict Cumberbatch (in a very capable performance mind you) had simply played a new super-villain named John Harrison this movie would've been so much better. Unfortunately the filmmakers insisted on Harrison revealing himself to actually be Khan Noonien Singh, in one of the most infamous all-time cases of Hollywood whitewashing (Seriously? A pale, lean Englishman playing a genetically engineered Middle Eastern prince??). From there Into Darkness goes to great lengths to remind everyone how awesome The Wrath of Khan was, by killing off one of the main characters (temporarily), introducing Dr. Carol Marcus, and even (in a bit of unintentional hilarity) scripting one of the main characters to angrily yell "KHAAAAAAN!!!" I thought the whole point of altering the timeline in 2009's Star Trek was so the series could create its own canon. Anyway, despite all this, Into Darkness is an awfully fun watch, one worthy of an Awesomely Shitty Movies column (Hmmmm.....).
6. Star Trek: First Contact
Easily the best of the Next Generation movies (albeit with some problems), First Contact sees Captain Picard and his crew travel back to the late 21st century in the hopes of restoring the timeline after a Borg ship retroactively assimilates the Earth's entire population. This time meddling also prevents the first warp-capable starship from making contact with an alien race and more or less giving birth to the Federation, thus the Enterprise crew must also ensure the historic "first contact" still occurs. Director Jonathan Frakes adeptly manages to juggle the various plot elements and make this a fast-paced, enjoyable Trek adventure. Despite its flaws (Picard is presented as more of a Kirk-type action hero character, completely contrary to his established persona on the TV show; the definitive Borg story had already been told in "Best of Both Worlds;" the Borg assimilation is now a quick, zombie infection-like process), First Contact is the apex of the NextGen films and in some ways at least, remains kinda true to the spirit of the show.
5. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The Star Trek cinematic universe kicked off with this 1979 epic helmed by veteran director Robert Wise, who gave this movie an epic quality and filled the frame with loads of expensive effects and eye candy. After bouncing back and forth in development between a new TV series and a feature film, ST: TMP finally came together as a grand story about a refit Enterprise intercepting an unfathomably powerful alien vessel on its way to Earth. True to Gene Roddenberry's approach to science fiction, the film explored themes of creation and existentialism, and the human condition was at the forefront. Unfortunately many audiences found the film's meditative pace a chore to sit through and missed the more adventurous aspects of the TV series. Plus those godawful pastel uniforms.... Still the film boasted a thoughtful, intelligently written screenplay and first-rate special effects, and was a hit at the box office. For the sequel though, Paramount removed Roddenberry from his producer role and took a much sleeker, more down n' dirty approach.
4. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
While nowhere near the level of greatness as its predecessor, Star Trek III is nonetheless a worthy follow-up, dealing with the aftermath of the Enterprise's battle with Khan and the Reliant that cost Mr. Spock his life. Kirk discovers that Spock transferred his living soul into Dr. McCoy's body, and vows to bring them both to Vulcan so Spock can be reborn. This is easily the darkest film in the original series, dealing with themes of death, rebirth, sacrifice, and loyalty. Leonard Nimoy made his feature directorial debut here, and while his inexperience in the chair shows a bit, Star Trek III is an engaging continuation of the events set in motion by The Wrath of Khan that builds to a satisfying, poignant conclusion. Plus the Enterprise self-destruct sequence is one of the most visually awesome scenes in the entire saga!
3. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Probably the most purely entertaining installment was this lighthearted, often hilarious 1986 film where the crew of the Enterprise must travel back to present-day Earth to retrieve a pair of humpback whales so they can stop an alien probe from destroying 23rd century Earth. It's an absurd premise and the film has no right to be as great as it is. But it's handled with such energy, comedic timing, and innate chemistry between the cast, that The Voyage Home is a joy to watch. This film also neatly resolves the events of Star Trek III, as Kirk and his crew face the consequences for their insubordination in the rescue of Mr. Spock. When The Voyage Home concludes, everything has been set right and our heroes are poised for their next adventure.....which unfortunately stinks. But that's another discussion. Star Trek IV is one of the series high points.
2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
After the abysmal Star Trek V failed to end the original series in style (Holy shitballs ST5 is awful, did I mention that?), Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer returned to "right the ship" and give the original crew one last adventure worthy of a swan song. ST6's allegorical plot involves the Klingon race facing extinction (drawing obvious parallels to the breakup of the Soviet Union) as the Federation endeavors to finally mend fences with their most famous enemy. Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew unwittingly become embroiled in a conspiracy to sabotage the peace talks, and Spock works furiously to unravel the mystery. This film returned the series to its adventurous roots while staying true to Gene Roddenberry's original intent of exploring human themes, in this case the breaking down of petty nationalism and prejudice. The Undiscovered Country would serve as a wonderful final voyage for Kirk & co, concluding the original film series on a very high note.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
I doubt any Star Trek film will ever eclipse TWOK. This streamlined, electrifying space adventure containing themes of aging, friendship, and revenge reintroduced the series character Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban in a delightfully wicked performance), pitting him against Admiral Kirk in a battle of wits and wills that culminates in a sensational emotional climax. Producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer found the perfect combination of lofty human concepts and swashbuckling thrills, introduced a distinctly maritime feel to the Star Trek universe with space battles resembling submarine duels, and essentially recreated the template for the quintessential Star Trek movie. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention James Horner's absolutely stunning score, whose seafaring strains evoke the optimism of exploration but also a melancholy uncertainty. Star Trek II is still by most estimates the best movie of the entire saga, and demonstrates extraordinary vision and creativity on the part of its makers. This film is a sci-fi masterpiece.
Well that's how I'm ranking the Star Trek movies. Comment below with your thoughts and rankings, and thanks for reading. Live long and prosper.
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